Parents fear autism, and rightly so. The mysterious brain disorder devastates a child's ability to speak and interact with others. Kids usually aren't diagnosed until age two, but some kids start showing signs of autism well before that.
Is your child at risk for autism? Here are nine red flags to watch for, from top autism researcher Dr. Rebecca Landa, director of the Center for Autism & Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.
Even if they're too young to talk, typical kids do all sorts of things to attract the attention of their caregivers. They smile, babble, move their arms and legs, etc. A child who makes no effort to connect with others might be at risk for autism.
Poor Eye Contact
Even kids as young as two months should be making eye contact. By age one or two, if your child seems more interested in gazing at objects (including your mouth) than gazing into your eyes, consider that a red flag.
Where Are the Words?
Googoo-gaagaa isn't just cute. It's a toddler's way of letting you know that language skills are developing. If a child doesn't babble by six months - or keeps babbling beyond the age when he/she should have started using words - he/she may have autism or a similar problem.
No Name Recognition
By six months of age, a child should be quick to look up when someone calls his/her name. Does your child fail to look up when called - or look up only some of the time? That's a red flag.
Show Me Your Smile
Smile at a baby, and he/she should smile back - at least some of the time. Kids as young as two months do that. Consider it an autism red flag if a child consistently fails to reciprocate others' smiles or laughs.
Lining Up Toys
Kids with autism often find strange things to do with their toys. The might spin, flick, or line them up - and they tend to keep doing it without any apparent purpose.
Arm flapping is a well-documented red flag for autism. But other strange body movements and postures can also suggest trouble ahead. Does your child repeatedly stiffen his/her arms or legs? Keep twisting his/her wrists?
Is your child your own personal echo chamber, habitually repeating part or all of the words you say? That's cause for concern. Some kids parrot TV programs or commercials rather than using words to communicate with others.
Babies and toddlers love to imitate the actions of others. It's how they learn to laugh, eat, and play. But kids showing signs of autism, imitate others infrequently.
Instead, they content themselves with observing rather than imitating. And when kids with autism do imitate others, they tend not to make a social game of it.